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On the Ground in Beirut An interview with Robert Fisk
R ecently, Robert Fisk, the Lebanon-based correspondent for the Independent of London, has been traveling the countryside, touching base with key players in a volatile political situation. I spoke to Fisk on March 31 .
DENNIS BERNSTEIN: Give us your overall analysis on the current situation in Lebanon.
ROBERT FISK: The Syrian army continues to withdraw—you can see Syrian army trucks pulling out—under the terms of the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, supported principally by the United States and France. The great fear of the Lebanese who oppose Syria, who are probably a majority, is that, as they leave, they will provoke violence, saying, well, you wanted us to go, look what’s happened, now that we’re leaving.
There have been three bombings in industrial areas of eastern—Christian—Beirut, which have killed three people so far. Many people believe that since these bombs did not set off any kind of inter-sectarian fighting that there will be other bombs. So people are very tense here. This evening, I was invited out for dinner in the Christian East Beirut area. My hosts called and said they’d rather not meet for dinner because they were too frightened to go out to the restaurant.
What the bombs have done is “petrify” the economy. This is a country, remember, that has a $33 billion dollar public debt, which was being serviced principally by the French and other European nations, courtesy of Rafik Hariri. With his death, who’s going to service the debt? People are running out of money, the Central Bank has spent five out of eleven billion dollars in trying to stabilize the Lebanese pound in the last five, six weeks. It’s a very serious situation.
Could you briefly lay out who the interested parties are, who is vying for power, and what the struggle there is like?
Basically, we’ve got a government that was effectively set up by the Syrians and a parliament that was elected under Syrian auspices, the majority of whose members are pro-Syrian. The president, who is a Christian Maronite, Emil Lahud, is a close friend of Syria. Omar Karami, the prime minister, who may or may not be resigning soon, is pro-Syrian. Most importantly, the Hezb Allah guerrilla movement is pro-Syria because all their weapons and money from Iran come via Damascus.
Opposed to this you have a very large number of the Sunni Muslim community, of whom the murdered ex-prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was a member; plus the Druze, headed by Walid Jumblatt and the Christian Maronites. So you have a country split along sectarian lines in which many Druze and Sunnis hope the Shiites come across to them, thereby making it a unified Lebanese opposition to Syria.
Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, is effectively the leader of the opposition now that Rafik Hariri is dead. He told me a few days ago that he and Hariri had met about a week before Hariri’s murder and Hariri had said, “Well, which of us is first, you or me?”
President Lahud of Lebanon, who is Syria’s best friend, has said, after his initial refusal to accept such an idea, that he would go along with a UN international inquiry into Hariri murder. This is quite a change; previously, he said no, we can’t have it, this is an internal Lebanese matter. He was protecting the security chiefs here who are basically Lebanese, but who work for the Syrians and who had, according to the initial UN inquiry commission report published later, tampered with the evidence.
So we have a whole series of events taking place: the possibility of an international inquiry; the appeal to the Hezb Allah to join the anti-Syrian opposition; and an opposition that could easily split apart between Druze, Sunni Muslims, and Christian Maronites. You have the Shiite population, which is partly with the Hezb Allah, and you have this constant Syrian presence, including security officers.
Walid Jumblatt came out saying that he opposes the resolution pushed through by France and the U.S. in September. He opposes the resolution to disarm Hezb Allah. Could you talk about that?
There are two issues here. There is the UN Security Council Resolution 1559, put forward by the United States and France, which calls for the total withdrawal of Syrian forces, including the entire intelligence apparatus of the Syrian Arab Republic from Lebanon, and also the disarmament of the Hezb Allah.
Walid Jumblatt, who was a great friend and ally of Syria for many years—despite the fact that he believed that the Syrians murdered his father—has all along believed that 1559 was, in fact, an Israeli project. It was an U.S.-supported resolution that effectively demanded what Israel wants—the end of Syrian rule in Lebanon and the end of the Hezb Allah guerrilla movement.
Jumblatt is not interested in playing the Israeli card. Needless to say, Omar Karami, you know, the boneless wonder of Lebanese politics, as I always call him, and Lahud have been claiming that the opposition is just doing Israel’s work for it by demanding that Syria withdraw and that Hezb Allah disarm. Three weeks ago, we had Bahia Hariri, the sister of Rafik Hariri, saying, “We will protect the resistance. The Hezb Allah can be protected by us. We will stop this nonsense about the disarmament.”
Jumblatt is aware that he appears to be backing 1559. So what he is saying and, indeed, what the Syrians are saying, is that the Syrian withdrawal is in accordance with the Tayif Agreement. (Tayif is a city in Saudi Arabia where in 1989 a peace treaty by all the factions to the Lebanese civil war was signed.) It was agreed that the Syrian army would withdraw from Lebanon and that the militias in Lebanon would be disarmed. So now the Hezb Allah are saying they’re not a militia, they’re a resistance movement—that’s different.
By and large, the Lebanese anti-Syrian coalition is saying, “No, we’re going along with Tayif, not 1559. We agree that it’s a resistance movement, not a militia, so it doesn’t have to be disarmed. ”
What no one is talking about, but everyone whispers, is that if Hezb Allah is disarmed and the Syrians have left, the U.S. ambassador will immediately pay a visit to the new Lebanese president and say, so how about a peace treaty with Israel—which the Lebanese, by and large, don’t want. Not until there is a settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli issue and the return of Golan to Syria and so on.
So the opposition has this problem: the more they shout for a Syrian withdrawal, the more they can be accused of playing Israel’s theme via Washington. The problem of the pro-Syrians is that the Syrians have agreed to withdraw under 1559 as well as Tayif. Which leaves them with what? Well, the Hezb Allah. So, which side will the Hezb Allah take? Will it become Syria’s surrogates or will it become a patriotic Lebanese movement and defend Lebanon? There’s the problem.
If there is a disarmed Hezb Allah, who will speak for these Palestinians still in these horrible camps in Lebanon? How will that play into the future of Palestinian liberation?
No one will speak for them. You see, oddly enough, the Syrians and the Hezb Allah are the only people who do speak for the Palestinians in Lebanon because the Lebanese, whatever their color and creed, would like the Palestinians to leave. The Palestinians in Lebanon do not have the right to go to work or to own property—a law passed two and a half years ago here stated specifically that Palestinians who owned property in Lebanon could not pass it on to their families. Inside Syria—let’s for a moment grit our teeth and be kind to Syria—the Palestinians can hold Syrian passports, they can buy property, and they can have proper jobs. The Lebanese don’t care whether the Palestinians leave for Syria or whether they leave for the West Bank or whether they go back to their home villages—which the Israelis will not allow them to do, nor will the Americans, so where do they go? The failure to address the Palestinian issue here over the years is one of the major problems that Lebanon faces.
Could you talk about the Shebaa Farms and why that’s such a crucial discussion?
Here’s the situation. In 1946, when Lebanon gained its independence from France, in the far southeast of Lebanon was an area of hills and mountains adjoining the Golan Heights. The nearest town was called Shebaa, and Shebaa Farms was an area to the southeast where Lebanese shepherds and Lebanese farmers looked after orange groves, olive groves, areas where they could put their animals to graze. At this time, the president of Syria believed that Syrian Jews were being smuggled from Damascus into Palestine—illegally, in his view—through Shebaa Farms, which is on this strategic road from the Golan Heights, from Damascus down into what was then Palestine and what is now Israel.
He wrote to Bishara Khouri, the very corrupt, slightly mad first president of Lebanon—a man who used to surprise his guests by appearing at the front door holding an eggplant and putting cocktail sticks into it and saying, look at my beautiful eggplant—and said, “Look, I believe that our Jewish citizens of Syria are being smuggled illegally through Shebaa Farms into Palestine. Please stop it.” Bishara Khouri didn’t care a damn about southern Lebanon any more than any other president and ignored the request. As a result, the president of Syria sent the police into Shebaa Farms, which was clearly part of Lebanon under the French mandate maps of the 1930s. The police took over a house and put up the Syrian flag along with a sign reading, “The Temporary Police Station of Shebaa Farms.”
In 1967 when the Israeli Army took over the Golan Heights, they captured Shebaa Farms, saw the Syrian flag on the police station and thought it was part of Syrian territory. From that day onwards, the Shebaa Farms area became part of Israeli-occupied territory. It was regarded by the Israelis as Syrian territory and was later annexed and became part of the state of Israel. Once the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, the Hezb Allah guerrilla movement said, well, hold on a second, we’ve driven the Israelis out, what is our raison d’etre? And one of them obviously said, Shebaa Farms is Lebanese. We’ve still got to have this liberated. The Israelis said, no, this is part of what was Syria, and we’ve annexed it.
I have to tell you, I’ve been to the French mandate maps in Paris and Shebaa Farms is definitely Lebanese territory and the Israelis are still on it. I’ve been to the border fence from the Lebanese side and I’ve been inside Israel and have gone into Shebaa Farms from the Israeli side and it is Lebanese. It should be handed back to Lebanon.
So the Hezb Allah now say, as long as the Israelis stay in Shebaa Farms, our resistance war continues. The Israelis say, “No, this is annexed by us from Syria, it is part of the state of Israel now, any attack on this territory is terrorism,” and here we go again. Of course, the fly in the ointment for everybody, or particularly for the Hezb Allah and the Lebanese, is that when the United Nations redrew the border between Lebanon and Israel after the Israeli withdrawal of 2000, they put Shebaa Farms on the Israeli side of the border, saying, the future of this area can be decided after there is a peace treaty.
So you have the UN in effect backing Israel, you have the Israelis acknowledging privately that it is Lebanese territory—but actually it’s annexed to Israel now—you have the Syrians, who previously thought it was, or pretended it was, Syrian territory, saying it’s Lebanese, the Lebanese must fight for it. You have the Lebanese, who never cared about Shebaa Farms, suddenly wanting desperately to recover this lost territory of their sovereign land.
Is there a fear now, with the bombings, that there could be a civil war?
Well, I live here and I’m concerned about it. The great danger is that the people believe, rightly or wrongly, that the Syrians were behind Hariri’s murder. People believe that as the Syrian army withdraws from Lebanon, as it continues to cross the border into Syria, that the Syrians will try and make the Lebanese pay for their departure. The Lebanese are saying, well, who’s setting off the bombs? Maybe the Syrians are doing it.
The three bombs which have gone off so far have exploded in Christian areas; the Christians being the opponents of the Syrian presence in Lebanon for many years now. The great concern and fear is that whoever is setting off these bombs—and be sure, the next bombs will kill many Lebanese people in the streets—will be attempting to re-ignite the civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1990, 15 terrible years which cost 150,000 Lebanese and Palestinian lives.
The upside of this is that the alliance between the Druze, the Sunni Muslims, and the Christians was in place before Hariri’s murder. The Christians no longer express their hatred of Muslims as they would have done 20 years ago; they express their cynicism towards Syria. Whether or not the Syrians are behind these bombings, they have not yet managed to provoke a single sectarian attack. There have been attacks, tragically, against Syrian workers in Lebanon— at least 35 Syrians, according to my statistics, have been murdered in Lebanon since Hariri’s death.
I was talking to a young friend of mine on the phone this evening and she said she didn’t want to go out into the streets tonight—she’s in East Beirut—because she felt that there would be bombs going off outside restaurants. Now we’re beginning to talk about East and West—East was Christian and West was Muslim during the civil war. You see how the old language returns. In West Beirut, where I live, people still go out, but with great caution.
I was in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon, and it’s a very tense situation, where you have followers of Hariri and of Sunni Muslims; you have followers of the pro-Syrian former government of Omar Karami, who comes from Tripoli; in the mountains above Tripoli you have a very extremist element of the Sunni community who support Osama bin Laden, and you have a minority of Alawites, an offshoot of the Shiite faith who run Syria. Even in the daytime, everyone is watching everyone.
But there isn’t a civil war, so far. Communities are not fighting each other. I can travel between different parts of Beirut. The young of Lebanon, particularly those who as children were sent away during the civil war to be educated in the U.S., London, Geneva, they don’t want to have the sectarian bitterness of their parents and their grandparents. If Rafik Hariri’s death has created anything good, it has produced a society that won’t go back to civil war—not yet. Let’s wait and see what happens in the coming weeks.
This interview aired initially on March 31 on Pacifica Radio’s “Flashpoints.” Dennis Bernstein is the host and executive producer of “Flashpoints,” a daily investigative news magazine. His articles, essays, and interviews have appeared widely in the mainstream and alterative press.
Z Magazine Archive
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Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
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Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
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